'One Man's Trash': A brilliant bit of television

March 7, 2021

Upon recommendation of Film Crit Hulk, I recently watched the episode of The Chris Gethard Show titled “One Man’s Trash”, available in its entirety on YouTube. You don’t need to know anything about Gethard or the show, which, despite airing in the mid 2010s, is a very 90s-MTV-ish zany comedic variety/talk show (I was aware of him, but hadn’t seen much of his material before). You don’t need to know anything about the guests, Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas, though you may recognize them from their extensive bodies of work.

Hulk’s post suggests the episode is a classic because of the sheer energy Gethard, Scheer, Mantzoukas, and other participants bring to the proceedings, which garners big laughs. And it’s true those guys overflow with jokes upon jokes. But I think the genius of the episode is that, confined to a single room, with a live audience and a bunch of callers, it’s a master class in improvisational comedy blended with a dramatic arc.

The stakes are low — it’s centered on a literal mystery box, whatever initial interest we might have comes from the goodwill we have for the people on stage, and there is no promise of reward for resolving the mystery. What we get is a beautiful journey in which Gethard, Scheer, and Mantzoukas, all experienced improvisational comics, “yes, and” their way through a barrage of ideas without ever losing the thread, nearly careening off the rails, but always regaining balance at just the right moment. Editing surely plays a role in this, but I sense the trust these guys have in each other that, despite cultivating a sense of chaos, they have a firm grip on the narrative and will get to where they need to go.

Compare this ~35 minutes of television (in the middle, there’s a short unrelated digression to promote the next episode) with any number of movies and shows, especially ones that have a central mystery. Yes, this has twists, and the tension is deliberately cranked up with a couple manufactured moments, but the reason it all works is because there are no secrets. We know from the start that Chris knows the answer, and Paul, Jason, and the audience do not. We also know Paul, Jason, and some audience members will be asking questions and making guesses, and that Chris will answer truthfully. And we know Chris, Paul, and Jason will try to make us laugh.

That’s it! The rules are clear, everyone’s objectives are clear, and everyone acts with integrity of intention. There’s no, "Well actually, you should know..." moment that comes out of nowhere. But what pushes this over the top is that, as with the best fictional mysteries, the resolution of the mystery doesn’t just provide an answer to a question but clarifies everything that came before, so that rewatching the episode is just as rewarding, like rewatching The Usual Suspects or Arrival.

Watch “One Man’s Trash”. It could change how you think about movies and TV in general.

(Photo of Jason Mantzoukas on The Chris Gethard Show via YouTube, used under fair use provisions. When you watch the show, you'll know why I chose that moment.)

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If you've made this far... thank you! It also probably means you're most likely to be interested in my Pittsburgh Pierogies story, which I published over the past few weeks via email and is now hosted in full right here on 29 Sunset.